The Egyptian Revolution Will be Televised | The Wall Street Journal

The Egyptian Revolution Will be Televised  | The Wall Street Journal

By Anna Louie Sussman

A week after Egypt erupted in revolution last January, Jon Alpert, an Emmy-winning documentarian and co-founder of the Downtown Community Television Center (DCTV), got the call he'd been waiting for. Sheila Nevins, the president of HBO Documentary Films, wanted him and his frequent collaborator, Matthew O'Neill, to go capture the popular uprising unfolding in Cairo's Tahrir Square. Mr. O'Neill was reporting in Haiti when he got word from Mr. Alpert—a 2 a.m. email with a one-word subject line: "Egypt?"

A few days later the pair were in Tahrir Square filming their friend Sharif Abdel Kouddous, an Egyptian-American journalist for Democracy Now!, whose personal connection to the revolution and to Egyptian history (his grandfather was a prominent journalist and his uncle was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood) became the backbone of their resulting film.

Ms. Nevins called Mr. Alpert, with whom she's worked for 15 years, "my Batman," for his fearlessness and ability to land in the middle of any crisis at a moment's notice. Mr. O'Neill later became her Robin, accompanying Mr. Alpert to Baghdad for 2006's "Baghdad ER," and to Sichuan, China, following the 2008 earthquake, for "China's Unnatural Disaster."

"You know how Superman flies out of a telephone booth?" she said. "They come flying out of DCTV."

On Wednesday, HBO will air the duo's 39-minute film, "In Tahrir Square: 18 Days of Egypt's Unfinished Revolution," to mark the one-year anniversary of the uprisings in Egypt. The Wall Street Journal sat down with Mr. O'Neill this week at his office in the former fire station in Chinatown that now houses the DCTV headquarters. Mr. Alpert joined by phone.

WSJ: Why did you choose to structure the film around Sharif Abdel Kouddous and his experience of the revolution?

Mr. Alpert: I've always been impressed by Sharif as a person; I respect his intelligence and his curiosity as a reporter. He's not the boy next door, because he has more charisma than the boy next door. We all agreed that this would be an interesting way for Americans to experience the revolution, because he spent so much time in the U.S. that there is a part of him that is deeply American.

WSJ: The film feels like a snapshot, with minimal narration by Sharif and very little music. Why did you decide to home in so closely on these 18 days in the Tahrir Square?

Mr. Alpert: This film for us, more than anything, is an experiential film. Even now people are trying to read the entrails of the Egyptian revolution and trying to predict where it's going. We felt our job was to help somebody who wasn't there actually feel like they were there and were part of a revolution. Like, wouldn't it have been neat to be at the Boston Tea Party?

Mr. O'Neill: More like the Boston Massacre than the Tea Party.

Mr. Alpert: It was an opportunity to put a historic moment in the bottle so people can open it up at a later date and see what it was like to be there. So there are no professors, no policy analysts…

Mr. O'Neill: No commentary, just revolution in a bottle. Usually you have media personalities commenting on the events as they occur, rather than listening to the people who are driving the events themselves. We didn't want to be looking down on the square, we wanted to be in the center of it—at the barricades with the people and then later in the center of the elation. Jon has never put himself in front of the camera, and I learned documentary filmmaking from Jon.

WSJ: Sheila Nevins commissioned this film and executive produced it. How did you become HBO's go-to crisis team?

Mr. Alpert: Sheila knows that if she says, "Hey guys, there's a revolution around the corner," or, "There's a really interesting story out there, but it could be kind of dangerous," that we're already packing our bags.

Mr. O'Neill: We've basically always got our hands in the air, ready to go to whatever happens to be going on in the far corners of the globe. We leave every screening with Sheila feeling challenged, with new ideas, and with a better shape for the film.

Mr. Alpert: And ready for the bar.

WSJ: You arrived in Cairo, on Feb. 9, two days before Hosni Mubarak resigned. How did you re-create the full experience of those 18 days?

Mr. O'Neill: We got there right on the eve of the success of the revolution. Between the ninth and the 13th, we were basically nonstop in Tahrir Square, or with Sharif as he commuted from his home in Zamalek to Tahrir Square. The footage from the earlier days is a mixture. A lot of footage was shot by another producer, Jacquie Soohen, and filmed with Sharif. She had gone over there earlier in February. We put this together with footage from a lot of independent journos, and footage from Sharif's cell phone and his Flip camera. When our cameras weren't there, we went out and found people who were, and re-created the vérité environment of those who were there, using their footage.

WSJ: The end of the film hints at some of the issues that have crystallized over the past year: the role of Islam in politics, the military's grip on power. Could you feel those tensions emerging while you were there, or did you add those parts later?

Mr. O'Neill: The words that you heard there—Sharif's words, his uncle's words—those were things that were being said in the immediate aftermath. Those are two men who know the politics of the country intimately, and they said those things on day one. This film is about those 18 days: the bloodshed, the heartache, the heroism and in the end, the elation. The end is the natural coda that points to, "What's next?"